Often referred to as the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha (c. 1769–1849) was an Ottoman Turkish military leader who ruled Egypt for much of his adult life, amassing such military power that he was able to threaten the rule of the Ottoman Sultan himself.
The reforms undertaken by Muhammad Ali as he centralized his power brought the foundations of modern statehood to Egypt. He put in place a vast military and economic apparatus financed by efficient tax collections, and his armies of drafted conscripts vanquished and then permanently replaced the feuding warlord groups that had ruled much of the Middle East. Muhammad Ali modernized education, ordering the translation of European books on a large scale, vaccinated children against smallpox and offered them medical care, conducted censuses, and undertook huge public works projects that established cotton as a key Egyptian cash crop, which it remains today. Early in his career he curbed the spread of the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam from the Arabian Peninsula.
Muhammad Ali was born around 1769 in Kavala, a seaport town in the Macedonian region and now part of Greece; the surname Pasha, a designation of high noble rank in the Ottoman Turkish empire, was given to him after he assumed Egyptian rule. After this point he would have been referred to as the Pasha; the Turkish form of his name, used by Ottoman ruling elites, was Mehmet Ali Pasa. He was probably an ethnic Albanian; his father, Ibrahim Agha, was a local Ottoman military commander. After his father's death, Muhammad Ali was raised by the local governor and married to one of the governor's relatives, the mother of the first five of what were said to be an eventual total of 95 children he sired. As a young man he worked as a tobacco dealer, a factor that may have influenced his later focus on agricultural trade.
It was military service that put Muhammad Ali on the path to his political career, and it was Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798 that initially set that career in motion. Napoleon's forces easily defeated those of the ruling Mamluks, a hereditary military caste originally composed of slave converts to Islam. At the time, Egypt was a partly autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, with ultimate control residing with the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Napoleon's troops in turn were driven out of Egypt by British forces in 1801, but the result was a power vacuum, with the Mamluks, the Sultan's forces, a contingent of feared Albanian troops under Muhammad Ali's command, and various local powers all contending for control. Muhammad Ali managed to align himself with local merchants and Islamic clerics, and in 1805 the Sultan Selim III named him wali , or viceroy, of Egypt.
He faced a series of obstacles in consolidating his power in such a chaotic situation. In the words of Khaled Fahmy, writing in The Cambridge History of Egypt , "Egypt's history in the first half of the 19th century was considerably shaped by [Muhammad Ali's] attempt to make his tenure more secure and permanent." He was threatened by the Mamluks, the expansionist British, village leaders and warlords from other parts of Egypt (he essentially controlled only Cairo at this point), and not least by the Sultan himself, who was leery of giving any of his subjects too much power. The first challenge came when the Sultan ordered the wali of Salonika to go to Cairo and change places with Muhammad Ali, but that ruler backed off from the plan in the face of Muhammad Ali's strong local support.
The British at the time supported the Mamluks as a counterweight to the power of the Ottoman Sultan, and they had interests of their own in opening up secure transportation routes to their colonies in India. In 1807 the British attacked Alexandria and Rosetta, but were repelled by the Pasha's force of 5,000 crack Albanian troops even as earlier fighters from the Islamic world had quickly capitulated to European forces. The most brutal chapter in Muhammad Ali's consolidation of power came in 1811, when he invited a large contingent of Mamluk fighters to participate in a large military parade. Bringing up the rear, the Mamluks entered a narrow passage leading out onto the large Roumaliya Square, whose entrances were controlled by gates. As the Mamluks bunched up in the passage, the Pasha's forces closed the gate in front of them and opened fire from the walls above. The result was a massacre that put an end to the period of Mamluk influence in Egypt.
The parade to which the Mamluks had been invited celebrated the dispatch of the Pasha's troops, under his son Tusun Pasha, to recapture the Hijaz, the region of the Arabian peninsula that contains the spiritually important cities of Mecca and Medina, from forces loyal to the philosophy of eighteenth-century Islamic leader Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi sect whose ideas still determine many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia today. The Pasha's campaign was inconclusive, but Mecca and Medina were captured and brought once again under the rule of the new Sultan, Mahmud II. The Pasha dispatched an emissary to the Sultan bearing the keys to both cities, but the Sultan's response was to urge the emissary, Latif Agha, to mount a coup against the Pasha. Mohammed Ali learned of the plot and had his deputy, Muhammad Lazughlu, seize Latif Agha and have him beheaded.
Influenced by the military drills and clear chain of command he had witnessed among European forces, the Pasha set about training his Albanian troops in accordance with a nizam al-jadid , or new order. This effort resulted in an assassination attempt, which the Pasha foiled. Gradually, however, Muhammad Ali regularized Egypt's army and began to enlarge it by drafting peasants from Egypt's outlying districts. He employed a French officer, a Colonel Sève, to train the new recruits, giving him the Ottoman name of Suleyman Pasha. The initial result of Muhammad Ali's growing military power was that Sultan Mahmud II attempted to blunt it by sending forces commanded by the Pasha's son Ibrahim Pasha to battle fighters struggling for Greece's independence from the Ottoman Empire. As the Pasha himself had foreseen, the campaign was unsuccessful, and the modern nation of Greece was the result. The Pasha increasingly began to regard the Ottoman central government with suspicion.
The chief aim of the Pasha's modernization schemes was always to finance his growing military (by the 1830s it numbered some 130,000 troops) by increasing tax revenues, for which he devised an efficient collection bureaucracy. Whatever their aim, his infrastructure projects were ambitious and far-reaching, if brutal. His most impressive accomplishment was the rebuilding of an ancient canal that linked Alexandria with the Nile River, an effort that reportedly cost the lives of some 100,000 of the Egyptian peasants who were ordered to do the digging. Under the Pasha's reign, the total length of Egypt's irrigation channels more than doubled, and the amount of land under cultivation between 1813 and 1830 increased by about 18 percent. Also costly in human terms was a military campaign in Sudan in the early 1820s, intended to swell the ranks of Egyptian slaves; only 3,000 of 20,000 Sudanese survived a forced march from their homeland to the Egyptian city of Aswan.
One effect of these developments was an increase in Egyptian cotton exports to Europe's hungry markets, with the Pasha and his relatives, whom he installed in key administrative posts, profiting at each checkpoint. Another form of foreign exchange was tourism, with members of the European nobility flocking to Egypt to experience its rich heritage of treasures from the ancient world. The Pasha replaced Egypt's patchwork of village, tribal, and religious governments with a modern set of administrative divisions modeled on those of European countries. And, anxious to ensure a steady supply of new military draftees, he established new hospitals and took the advice of European doctors regarding the efficacy of the new smallpox vaccine, invented by Edward Jenner in Britain in 1796.
The 1830s marked the apex of Muhammad Ali's expansionist ambitions. After initial consideration of a thrust westward toward Tripoli, he launched an invasion of Syria in 1831, using the excuse that he was only trying to arrest a group of 6,000 Egyptian draft dodgers. A force of 30,000 fighters under his son Ibrahim Pasha captured the city of Acre (now in northern Israel) after a siege lasting six months, overran the rest of Syria, and then moved forward into the Anatolia region of present-day Turkey in 1832. In a battle on the Anatolian plains north of Konya, Turkey, the Pasha's forces defeated Ottoman troops under Grand Vizier Muhammad Rashid Pasha, leaving them with an open road to Constantinople and the imperial palaces.
Although Ibrahim Pasha urged his father to declare Egypt's independence from the empire, Muhammad Ali, who was culturally, linguistically, and administratively Ottoman, hesitated. The Turkish Sultan took advantage of this window of opportunity to ask for help from the European powers; turned down by British foreign minister Lord Palmerston, he persuaded a Russian navy to come to his aid. The result was 1833's Peace of Kutahia, which recognized Muhammad Ali's legitimacy as wali of Egypt, the Hijaz, and Crete, and granted Ibrahim Pasha the same status in several Syrian territories. The Pasha's tax-collecting prerogatives were also expanded.
That did not prevent a decline in Egypt's financial fortunes in the 1830s, however, as the Pasha's enormous administrative and military reach showed signs of over-extension. The Pasha proposed a giant Nile River flood control project, to be built of stones from the Pyramids; it was initially abandoned but was later completed in 1861. Disaffection rose in Egypt due to high taxes and punishing military conscription rates among the young, but a second glorious campaign once again showed Ibrahim Pasha's military skills, as Egyptian forces defeated those of the ailing Mahmud II at the Battle of Nezib, near Urfa in southeast Turkey, in 1839. Once again the Pasha seemed on the brink of regional rule, and once again he hesitated. This time it was British intervention that saved the new 16-year-old Sultan, Abid-ul-Mejid, and allowed him to maintain control over the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Treaty of London that was then negotiated, Muhammad Ali agreed to limit his army to 18,000 troops and to relinquish his Syrian conquests. In return, he was declared ruler of Egypt for life, and his rule was extended to his heirs, giving them a unique status within the Ottoman realm. During the 1840s Muhammad Ali consolidated many of his innovations before beginning to show signs of age-related cognitive deterioration. He was removed as wali in 1848, died in Alexandria on August 2, 1849, and was buried in the magnificent Muhammad Ali mosque that remains a Cairo landmark today.
Fahmy, Khaled, All the Pasha's Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt , American University in Cairo Press, 1997.
Fahmy, Khaled, "The Era of Muhammad Ali Pasha, 1805–1848," The Cambridge History of Egypt , Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Hourani, Albert, A History of the Arab Peoples , Faber and Faber, 2002.
Sowell, Kirk H., The Arab World: An Illustrated History , Hippocrene, 2004.
"Muhammad Ali and Alexandria," Tour Egypt!, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/alialexandria.htm (February 16, 2007).
"Muhammad Ali Pasha," Tour Egypt!, http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/muhammadali.htm (February 7, 2007).